The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (A-)
First and foremost I have to say that I have a profound appreciation that this book exists. That may seem a bit silly to say (it does to me), but that is what I genuinely feel. I appreciate how this book raises a number of ideas about technology and culture and education and child-rearing, how they interact and affect one another, and it does so without any implication that Stephenson believes there is a singular point to express. There are dialogues here, but no speeches, no “This is what the author believes” bits. The ideas and questions raised are large, perhaps too large to ever be definitively answered, and Stephenson never acts as if he has special wisdom or insight. (Unless I really missed the point.)
He is not wholly detached; there are many moments throughout where it is clear he has a view of right and wrong, proper and improper. But there is also an undercurrent that gives the impression he is like a scientist considering a specimen in a jar. Perhaps that is the best way to approach these ideas, letting the world and the characters loose to play out as they will, as they must. The continued existence of haves and have-nots, and the apparent inevitability of violent reaction between two conflicting ideologies or cultures, do not come across as Stephenson saying ‘This is right’ but ‘This is how things are.’
This is a book filled with interlocking ideas building up a grand question of what guides personal and cultural development, inviting the reader to think about these issues without any handholding or attempting to lead them to a certain conclusion. And I love that such a book exists. There’s no shortage of stories in any medium attempting to convey or reinforce a certain belief, a certain way of looking at the world, but how many trust the audience to consider a question that may not have an answer?
The story: nanotechnology has become so ubiquitous that even the poorest houses have matter compilers (though other things like physical space and access to handmade goods are still prone to the issue of scarcity and supply/demand, as is access to the raw materials used by the compilers), with this (and other technological advances) leading to the dissolution of traditional nations in favor of enclaves (phyles) built around a shared culture (the dominant ones being nostalgia-driven, like the Victorian England-style ‘New Atlantis’).
(And here I’ll sidetrack to say that the first great decision about this book, something so many lesser writers would no doubt get wrong, is in making the nanotechnology commonplace before the story begins. ‘The question is not what it can do, but how it should be used,’ or however the line goes. Not only does Stephenson sail right over any blatant anti-science fearmongering like the grey goo scenario, but it frees him to look at the real ramifications of technological progress. There’s no ‘Science is going too far,’ no ‘We must keep the genie in the bottle’ sensationalism, no ‘We’re on the brink of something radical.’ It’s like a look at life in a world threatened by Mutually Assured Destruction: not as flashy as a story involving an actual nuclear apocalypse, but much more thoughtful and realistic.)
Believing that some cultures are inherently superior to others, and recognizing the importance of education (and the kind of education imparted) to maintaining the existence and robustness of any culture, a high-ranking member of New Atlantis commissions the creation of a Primer designed to teach and develop its owner into someone with the skills and knowledge necessary to be a well-rounded, contributing member of society. Not just education by rote, but a personal relationship with the child that also teaches lessons about what a person should be like in addition to what someone should know.
Through a series of events the first copy of the Primer falls into the hands of Nell, a poor girl not affiliated with any specific phyle. Under the book’s influence (her lessons framed as a fantasy story of increasing depth as she grows and learns) she learns self-defense, computing, etiquette, cooking, and various other skills. Other copies of the Primer find their way to the commissioner’s granddaughter (the intended recipient), the daughter of the Primer’s programmer, and a few thousand abandoned Chinese girls cared for by a criminal overlord. The focus of the story shifts between several characters, but this is mainly Nell’s story, and how the other girls are influenced by the Primer is underexplored.
As we follow Nell from toddlerhood to adulthood we also see how the invention of the Primer itself affects several players involved in its creation (primarily the programmer) or people who are drawn into Nell’s life (or, more accurately, have Nell drawn into theirs, as she is a minor and teenager for most of the book and of limited autonomy), and there is a looming plot thread of the Feed (the system of nanotechnology and matter compilers, whose material source is controlled by Western phyles) being challenged by a speculative technology referred to as the Seed, an open-source form of material creation that would eliminate the still-present concentration of wealth in a few hands. This last thread comes to a head as a violent uprising of native Chinese against the various Western/foreign phyles in the book’s setting of Shanghai (and precipitates Nell’s stepping up to her destiny).
Diamond Age weaves through these different stories a bit more seamlessly than Snow Crash; even though both books contain a surfeit of world-building details and bits that don’t matter to the plot or themes at large but which amused Stephenson enough to be included, there’s fewer times when the plot feels like it’s come to an halt so Stephenson can go on a tangent.
At the same time, I’m shaving points off because the dominant phyles are just cultural throwbacks, in a sense, deliberately mining and mimicking the past to inform present etiquette and social structure. Because I’m leery of the ‘paradise lost’ myth and excessive nostalgia I would have liked at least some explanation/examination of why multiple generations would go along with (for lack of a better term) resurrecting cultural norms and standards of yesteryear. I really would have preferred a group of radically new and unique phyles, perhaps a melting pot or two combining dominant elements of recognizable cultures or civilizations but adapted to this new world. Maybe combine, say, the independent streak associated with the American cowboy with the overwhelming dedication to one’s work of the Japanese salaryman, praising both a distinct streak of self-determination and being a loyal office drone.
I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here. And yeah, there are references to phyles that look to the future rather than the past, though they’re not in the spotlight. I can understand the idea of people wanting to bring back the rules of etiquette and propriety from a certain time and place (Victorian Britain, in this case), but why would an allegiance to that one culture and only that one culture last past a single generation (if that long)? Why wouldn’t the arts, humanities or philosophies of other cultures bleed into New Atlantis?
Then again… country music is like a self-perpetuating phyle, the music and personas of its stars carefully tailored to reinforce certain views and the belief in the superiority of particular classes of people, pasttimes, etc. In other words, country music teaches and reteaches the superiority of small town living, Christianity, farm work, big trucks, beer, and other signifiers of the Country ‘brand.’ I guess I can see New Atlantis instilling a devotion to the complete package, a view that it’s all related.
I’m digressing… Do I have anything else to say about the book?
It has an *excellent* depiction of a young child’s thoughts and understanding of the world, and Nell’s growth and maturity into adulthood is pretty much flawless. The fantasy parts of the story, the Primer’s lessons to young Nell being relayed in a story that mirrors and predicts Nell’s real life, could have been a weakpoint in this story, being little more than broadstrokes of the fantasy/fairy tale genre (wicked stepmother, commoner who finds out she’s a princess, magic animals) without true craft. A mimicry, an invocation of what a general audiences associates with the genre. But Stephenson gives his own flourish here, utilizing the archetypes while also making it his own.
And I find it interesting how certain characters are built up to be crucial to the story but then disappear when their job is done. Judge Fang in particular; his concept of Confucianism and how he changes his life after his encounters with Dr. X would have made for an interesting entrypoint to discussions of the theme of culture, education and upbringing.
I was also genuinely surprised by how certain events played out. Another story would have made the first copy of the Primer a McGuffin, something the bad guys want and Nell has to not only hide it but learn from it so she can fight back against them in time. But no. When the man who commissioned the creation of the Primer finds out Nell has the book, he not only takes no action to steal it from her (another copy had been made already, so it’s not like this is a ‘there’s only one’ situation) but he indirectly helps her at a couple crucial times in her life, ensuring she is able to get the most out of the opportunity the Primer presents to her.
Like I said, I appreciate that such a work exists, challenging me and drawing me in so strongly. I won’t pretend I ‘got’ all of it in one reading, but everything that’s there intrigued me.